Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott has long since been one of my favorite writers as well as my idol. I greatly admire her determination to remain unmarried in an era when few other options were open to women. She also championed reform and wrote some pretty great children's books!

PBS aired a documentary on Louisa May Alcott last night on American Masters. I enjoyed the documentary a lot. Rather than straight interviews about Louisa, they used actors to portray the Alcotts, their friends and Louisa's first biographer. The documentary showed Louisa from childhood to adulthood in various scenes from her life. I loved seeing the scenes set in Concord. Other times Louisa addressed the camera directly, sharing her private thoughts from diaries and letters. The acting is great and really adds another dimension to the film and makes it more entertaining. Even though I've read extensively about Louisa, I learned a lot. Louisa suffered from periodic bouts of severe depression and even considered suicide when her life seemed meaningless. She disliked writing "moral pap for the young" and wrote pulp fiction stories under a pseudonym. Some of the thrillers have been published recently and are quite good! I also discovered that modern doctors think Louisa may have suffered from Lupus or another auto-immune disease. At Orchard House the tour guide says Louisa died from mercury poisoning from medicine given to her after an illness contracted while working as a nurse during the Civil War.

I think this documentary does a great job capturing Louisa's life and contributing to an understanding of her importance.

Learn more about Louisa at the filmmaker's website

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria

I just returned from seeing the movie The Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt as young Queen Victoria. The movie is about the first two years of Victoria's reign as she struggled to break free of her sheltered childhood and the political machinations of her relatives to become a grown woman and a queen. It is also a love story between Victoria and her handsome, shy cousin Prince Albert.

I absolutely loved this movie! Being an avid fan of the Victorian era, it was incredible to see the world which I have read so much about. Marissa Doyle's excellent young adult novel Bewitching Season stuck in my mind as I watched the movie. Fans of the book will be excited to see Dash, the spaniel and watch the scheming Conroy try to manipulate Victoria. The costumes are to-die-for and the acting was great. Rupert Friend and Emily Blunt worked well together and really seemed like a young couple in love. I fell in love with Albert myself! He was sweet and a little shy and nerdy and like Victoria, he was a pawn in an elaborate chess game controlled by his uncle.

Being nitpicky, I noticed that Victoria's accent was more BBC than 19th century royal and she used "I" instead of the royal "We." Also I felt that the scenes detailing Victoria's early childhood were rushed and glossed over and the end dragged on a bit. I would have liked to have seen more childhood and more about Victoria's controlling mother, who comes across as a weak-willed woman in the film. Also, Sir John Conroy wasn't well-developed. We're told about what he wants and how he means to achieve his goals but not much from him. He also comes across as too villainous, physically threatening Victoria, which I doubt he did in real life.

I wouldn't recommend this the general public but for die-hard Victorian wannabes, lovers of costume drama and those who love a good love-story, this is a must-see! The movie theater went to still has a projection screen and I would love to see this again in digital!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

History of Concord, Massachusetts

Concord, Massachusetts

Align Center One of my favorite places to visit!

When I'm there, I love to visit Louisa May Alcott's home, Orchard House. Orchard House is the little brown house where the March family lives in Little Women. Little Women is based heavily on the lives of Louisa and her sisters. In the kitchen you can see the breadboard where youngest sister Abba May (Amy) burned a portrait of a man. You can also also see her bedroom where she drew all over the walls and Louisa’s bedroom where she wrote Little Women! There is a little room belonging to Louisa’s nephews featuring toys and games from the 19th century. There are items in the house which visitors will recognize from Little Women throughout the house, such as Beth's piano and the old sofa where Jo and Laurie sat to chat with pillows between them.

Another place I love to visit is The Wayside, the home of three famous authors: Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Sidney (author of the Five Little Peppers series and other stories for children).

The home was originally built in the colonial era and has had many additions over the years.
The Visitor’s Center tells about the families that lived there. The Alcott family lived there from 1845-1848. It was the first house they
owned and Louisa spent her happiest days there and it is the setting of Little Women! In fact, the visitor’s center is in the barn where the girls performed their plays! Visitors can view the room Louisa’s father used as a study and that he had turned into bedrooms for Louisa and her younger sister. In one room, you can view a place where Louisa’s family hid a runaway slave. Louisa wrote her first book during this time called Flower Fables, based on stories she told Ellen Emerson while babysitting.

Nathaniel Hawthorne lived there next from 1852-1870.
The Hawthornes didn’t live there the whole time, they went to Europe for several years and the oldest daughter became very ill in Italy and the Hawthornes returned home. Visitors may see Miss Hawthorne's bedroom. The Hawthornes had many additions made to the house which caused Nathaniel Hawthorne to fall into debt. Hawthorne had a tall tower built on top of the house to use as his study. Visitors to the house climb a long narrow staircase to the study, which was modeled after a castle in Italy. The son of the next owners decorated the ceiling in memory of Hawthorne who died in 1864. In 1883 the house was sold to a publisher Daniel Lothrop as a late wedding present for his wife who admired Hawthorne. Mrs. Lothrop published a series of children’s books about a family called The Five Little Peppers under the pen name of Margaret Sidney. The Lothrops were the first historic preservationists and decided not to change the house too much from the time when Hawthorne lived there. They added the front porch in 1904 and the house is decorated in period furnishings from the Lothrop's era. After the author’s husband died, she lived at The Wayside with her daughter. They traveled around the world until her death in 1922. Her daughter turned the house into a museum. Both houses are well worth a visit for Louisa May Alcott fanatics, children's literature enthusiasts and lovers of old homes and historic towns!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Jane!

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen's birthday. Happy Birthday, Jane! Thanks for bringing us readers such joy with your witty and wonderful books! We are forever grateful to your parents for bringing you into this word and teaching you the pleasures of a good book.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Brightsea by Jane Gillespie -- Sequel to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility
This book revisits the Steele sisters from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Remember them, the nieces of the kindly Mrs. Jenkins, whose daughter is married to Elinor and Marianne's relative. Lucy Steele was secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars but switched her allegiance to Robert when she learned he was to inherit and Edward to be a poor clergyman. It's not nine years lady and Lucy's sister Nancy is 40 years old and still silly, wanting in sense and on the lookout for a husband. Lucy is more disagreeable than ever with the cares and concerns of a profligate husband and a young family. Nancy bounces around from relative to relative ringing up massive debts until finally, Mr. Palmer decides he's had enough of her and recommends her to an acquaintance of his as a companion for a young lady just out of the school room. Nancy is reluctant to take employment (the horror!) but decides a house with servants and money to spend in a town by the sea outweighs the negative connotations of being a paid companion. Instead of the lively and gay young lady Nancy is expecting, Louisa is sober and bookish, she doesn't know how to dance and wants to learn Latin! While Louisa is busy studying Latin with the handsome young clergyman, Nancy spends money and flirts with the other visitors to Brightsea, in particular, a Mr. Forgan. Louisa begins to enjoy Brightsea society and the attentions of Mr. Forgan but her grandmother's old nurse warns her that Mr. Forgan is not what he should be and Louisa must decide what to do about Mr. Forgan. Lucy and her children pay a visit to needle Nancy and help move the action along and all concludes as it should. I read this book before but didn't remember until I had started reading. It didn't hold my interest very easily. The plot was rather slow moving until the end when it wrapped up in a quick summary of what happens next. Nancy is still disagreeable and Louisa is kind of a bland heroine. If you're looking for romance, or even as much romance as Jane Austen, this book isn't for you. The romance is quiet and blooms slowly and we're told what happens rather than seeing the action. If you loved to hate the Steele sisters and wonder what happens to them, then you'll enjoy this quick and imaginative sequel.

A Country Flirtation by Valerie King -- Regency Romance
After turning down 8 offers of marriage because she could not love the gentleman, Miss Constance Pamblerley is now nine and twenty and a confirmed spinster. She isn't bothered by that though and is happy being the mistress of Lady Brook Cottage and the surrounding estate. She has her hands full caring for her invalid mother and four younger sisters and soon she has two more charges on her hands when a treacherous bend in the road causes a young man to wreck his curricle in Lady Brook's yard. The young man can not recall his identity and is under doctor's orders to remain at Lady Brook until he does. Constance's younger sisters dote on "Mr. Albion" or "Alby" as they call him and Constance fears they are in danger of falling in love with a penniless man, which will not do. Constance has little time to consider whether Alby is faking his illness because soon, Alby's (real name Charles Kidmarsh) guardian, Lord Ramsdell comes crashing his curricle into Lady Brook's yard. Lord Ramsdell's accident causes a broken arm and a fever and Constance spends most of her time nursing the Viscount. When Lord Ramsdell awakens from his fever, he falls instantly in love with his nurse and she soon follows. They become close confidants and friends as well as flirting and kissing partners. Constance tells herself that it's only a summer country flirtation and that it doesn't mean anything but her heart has other ideas. Meanwhile, Alby/Charles thrives under the Pamberley sisters' care. He grows from a coddled boy into a man with chores and vigorous exercise. He also falls in love with the youngest sister, Augusta, and she helps him gather the courage to face his future. This is a silly, lighthearted romance. The characters continually behave out-of-bounds for that time period and the whole plot is unrealistic. I liked Charles and his coming-of-age story but I felt that Lord Ramsedell, whose name isn't revealed until Chapter 12, wasn't fleshed out enough to be a proper hero. I admired Constance in the way she managed her estate and took care of her sisters and mother, but this Cinderella story was a bit too much of a fairy tale for me. Hopeless romantics rejoice because this book is for you; hardcore historians, not so much.

Changing Seasons by Jessie Watson -- Regency Romance
When Charlotte Middleton discovers that her fiance and best friend Rupert Frost has been keeping company with a lightskirt, Charlotte is angry and embarrassed enough to break off the engagement. She and Rupert exchange heated words and threats they don't mean. In a fit of pique, Rupert enlists in the army and Charlotte marries a dull local man. Nine years later, with the wars over, Rupert has begun to think about how lonely he is. His correspondence with the uncle of a fallen comrade leads Rupert to the small English country village of Edenshade, where Charlotte resides. Charlotte is now a widow of means, happy performing charitable works and socializing with the neighbors. Rupert's return stirs up old feelings and she isn't sure she's ready to confront them or whether Rupert's attentions mean anything more than friendship. As the seasons change, Rupert, Charlotte and the people of Edenshade are consumed with the summer flower show/content, the biggest event in the area. The spring and summer bring new friends and new romances and the idea of marriage to mind. This is a nice, quiet story in the manner of Jane Austen. The small town locals are quirky and charming and Rupert quickly becomes part of life in Edenshade. While Rupert and Charlotte are kind of bland characters, I appreciate their quiet romance and their close friendship without all the adjectives in the dictionary describing their feelings. Much of the novel is taken up with gardening and the flower show. There are a lot of characters, which I found hard to keep track of but I liked meeting them and seeing life in this small town as an insider rather than an outsider. This is a nice novel for Jane Austen fanatics who prefer stories about country families to heady romance.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jane Austen Tea Dance

Jane Austen Tea Dance

This afternoon I attended a tea dance in honor of the 234th anniversary of Jane Austen's birth ( a few days early). Dance historian Susan de Guardiola from Connecticut taught English country dances, the Boulanger, and Sir Roger de Coverley (aka The Fezziwig Dance). There were many ladies and gentlemen in costume including Susan, Gail Eastwood and Liefe Wheeler, our hostesses.

de Guardiola

The first dances were what Susan termed "flirty dance;" the ones mentioned in the novels where Mr. Bingley stood up for two sets with Jane Bennet (a total of about 3 hours!) and where Mr. Darcy and Lizzie bantered. These were exceedingly difficult with many little hopping steps and turns.

Next we danced cotillion dances, popular at the end of the 18th century. They are the forerunner of modern square dancing and I enjoyed those but it was hard to remember all the movements and remember when it was my turn! I sat out the Boulanger, but learned that it is the only dance Jane Austen ever mentioned by name and wrote about in her letters. She preferred the older style dancing of her youth to the modern dancing done by her nieces and nephews. We concluded with the Sir Roger de Coverley, which is the dance done at Fezziwig's in A Christmas Carol. As A Christmas Carol is my family's favorite Christmas story, I enjoyed learning this dance.

Watch a slideshow of the dancing:

They hope to host another Regency dancing event in the spring so stay tuned for more details!

Friday, December 11, 2009

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Bluestocking Bride by Elizabeth Thornton -- Regency Romance
Richard Fotherville, Marquis of Rutherston is now 30 years of age and promised his mother he would give up his wild ways and settle down. First, though, he must tend to his new estate, Branley Park,inherited from an uncle. There he encounters Catherine Harland in his library, absorbed in a book and mistaking her for a servant insults her and orders her off. Catherine plays dumb and mocks Rutherston which results in his bestowing an extremely passionate kiss upon Catherine. Before the kiss progresses into anything more, they are interrupted by Rutherston's cousin and Catherine's old friend Charles Norton. Charles reveals Catherine's true identity as the intelligent niece of their old Oxford don who resides on a neighboring estate. Rutherston is shocked by Catherine's further hoydenish and bluestocking behavior. He believes the Greek heroine Andromanche is the ideal woman because she is meek and passive. His future bride must submit to him in all things. Of course he can not ignore his physical attraction to Catherine and follows her to London where she is enjoying her first Season. Catherine is convinced Rutherston doesn't meet her ideal but she also can not hide her physical attraction to him, so she marries him! Then the plot turns to the obvious misunderstandings of young married couples of that time. Meanwhile, Catherine's sister and Rutherston's cousin have fallen in love and without the money to support a her, Charles's hopes seem lost. Finally, the book reaches it's predictable conclusion with a number of cliched plot points and graphic love scenes. Needless to say, I could not stand this novel. Catherine seemed like a promising heroine at first but she gave in too easily and allowed self-doubts to nearly ruin her marriage. Richard was a selfish pig and I hated him. There were way too many plots in this book and none of them played out realistically or uniquely. Catherine and Richard spend much of their early weeks of marriage in bed and there is little description of anything else. Skip this novel if you like well-written, plot-driven, realistic stories.

Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy (Bloody Jack Adventures) by L. A. Meyer -- YA Historical Fiction
Jack's back in the arms of her beloved Jaimy and they are soon to be wed but of course they are again separated, this time by the British Intelligence who have a score to settle with Jacky and whisk her off to a secret mission in the Caribbean to dive for buried Spanish treasure. Jacky embarks on her latest adventure on the Nancy B. Alsop with her crew and some new characters. Jacky must contend with a wooden diving bell, cock fights, romantic and treacherous pirates and a wicked Spaniard. All the while, she's up to her old cunning tricks and is determined to survive by her wits. An extra bonus for Jacky is that Jaimy is nearby on the Dolphin, but poor Jacky and Jaimy have sworn a vow of chastity before the captain so they might as well be apart. This is a typical Jacky adventure meets Pirates of the Caribbean. I like all the historical details about Havana and the Navy but dislike how violent this adventure is. If you're a fan of Jacky Faber then you're sure to like this novel. I think I know where Jacky's headed next and I can't wait to see what else she gets up to. I'm a little tired of the star-crossed lovers plot and Jacky's over-the-top manner. The first three books were the best in my opinion, but the quality of writing isn't any less entertaining and I enjoyed reading about Jacky's latest adventure.

Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels by Deirdre Le Faye -- Non-Fiction
This book is full of factual information about Jane Austen's life and times and how those topics relate to her novels. It includes information about cultural activities such as games and dancing, homes of the day, the Royal family and much much more. There are full color plates and photographs which enhance the information. Though I've read considerably on Jane Austen, the Regency era and her novels, I enjoyed this book and learned a few things.
I especially liked seeing the pictures of Jane Austen's writing desk and table as well as the portraits of what her characters may have looked like. This is a great book for new and old Jane Austen fans and a worthy addition to any Janeite's library.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Miss Darby's Duenna by Sheri Cobb South -- Regency Romantic Comedy
Now that Harry Hawthorne has inherited his father's title and estate, he feels it's high time he takes a wife. He chooses his childhood pal, Olivia Darby, because she's a mild-mannered girl who won't stand in the way of his pursuit of pleasure. Olivia feels it's too soon to marry and wants to have a London Season before she settles down. Harry isn't happy with that idea but he can't override her decision. Harry's younger sister, Georgina wants to marry the local vicar, but Harry, sensing this his sister is in the throes of a school girl crush, decides she should go to London with Olivia and have a Season. Olivia's mother accompanies the girls to London while Harry avoids the social scene and oggles opera dancers. Harry's rival for a popular actress, Lord Mannerly, seeks revenge for his hurt pride and decides to make Olivia his prey. Olivia finds Mannerly charming and insists on seeing him though Harry forbids it. Harry feels he has no choice but to masquerade as his own grandmother in order to properly chaperon Olivia! Harry's sister isn't fooled and Lord Mannerly is suspicious but Olivia misses the absent Harry and draws closer to Mannerly. Harry's charade causes some gossip belowstairs and the faux Dowager attracts the attentions of an old flame. This story has all the makings of a screwball comedy but for me, it fell flat. There wasn't any chemistry between Harry and Olivia and Harry was boring and rude. I couldn't understand their attraction to one another and the reader is only told how Olivia used to worship Harry when they were children. Their feelings seem to come out of nowhere. The relationship between Mannerly and Georgina showed promise but the dialogue wasn't quite witty enough to charm me. Overall, this book failed to meet expectations and I was sadly disappointed.

Elizabeth And The Major by Lynn Collum -- Regency Romance
Miss Elizabeth Fields left off her hoydenish ways when her mother died three years ago and has become the model daughter and a mother to her younger siblings. Elizabeth's father encourages her to accompany her shy best friend, The Honorable Julia Powers, to a house party where Julia is one of several young ladies who may inherit the estate from her eccentric cousin Esme. Elizabeth is hesitant to leave her family but realizes that Julia needs to get away from her domineering mother for awhile and agrees to go off to the country with Julia. While in the country, Elizabeth and Julia meet the other two young ladies who are Esme's prospective heirs; the flirtations society girl Myra Bradford and Miss Imogene Shelton, a silly schoolroom miss. Imogene is accompanied by her handsome older half-brother, Major Roderick Shelton, who is home on leave after being wounded in the Peninsular Wars. Roderick is a doting brother who wishes to see his sister's future settled before returning to war. He must make his own way in the world though he is heir to a Viscountcy. When Elizabeth first meets Roger, she's embarrassed by her unladylike behavior but thinks he's the most handsome man she's ever seen. Likewise, he's physically attracted to her but worries about her behavior. As they get to know each other, Elizabeth and Roderick discover they share common interests, including a dislike of the fashionable fribble Sir Gordon, Esme's greedy cousin who has crashed the party in hopes of slandering the women and gaining the inheritance for himself. When someone seems to be trying to scare off Imogene, the major believes the worst with nearly disastrous consequences for everyone involved. The plot summary on the back of the book is misleading. I expected an amusing romp with witty dialogue and over-the-top situations. I couldn't find any of the aforementioned in the plot of this novel. The story moves slowly and isn't very interesting. There isn't much character development and when there is, it's tossed in and then glossed over. I didn't find the romance believable at all because of the lack of characterization. The plot was entirely predictable from beginning to end and I just didn't feel anything for the characters or care what happened to them. Some of the situations were funny and I liked Julia and wished she were the main character. Overall, I found this to be a mediocre story and won't read it again.

Rumors: A Luxe Novel by Anna Godbersen -- YA Historical Fiction/Romance
Picking up two months after The Luxe left off, this book continues the story of the Holland sisters. Elizabeth has faked her own death to head west to find her boyfriend, Will leaving Diana to deal with the societal pressures of finding a husband and navigating the sticky situation with Henry Schoonmaker. The plot of this book is far more contrived and soap operaish than The Luxe. It features star-crossed lovers who do forbidden things that are entirely unrealistic for that time and place. The book also continues the story of the former maid, Lina, a scheming social climber who is determined to be a society lady aided by Penelope Hayes. I felt like I was watching a CW (TV) teen drama while reading this book and I was very disappointed in the way the characters behaved given their situations. I sympathize with Elizabeth but I also feel she was selfish to leave Diana alone. Diana is very young and silly and I didn't like her as much in this novel as I did the first. I'm not sure I am going to continue with the series. I'm not really into melodrama.